Continuing to seek an intimate connection with God

What God wants is impossible to achieve. Nobody can do it. No wonder the people of Israel failed at Mount Sinai. And yet, there is definitely a way of getting around the golden calf.

Moses smashed God’s word to pieces. He destroyed the tablets containing the commandments which the Almighty Himself had engraved on them. The reason for his outburst: Moses saw the people cheering and dancing around a statue.

The golden calf … There are few other biblical events that have given rise to as many sayings and images as the ones described in chapters 32 to 34 of Exodus. And hardly any other biblical event has been interpreted so variously over time.

Long absent, soon forgotten?

The story in a nutshell. The Israelites had been camping at Mount Sinai for a while, and Moses had once again gone up the mountain. When they did not hear from him for 40 days, the people started to become restless. Not only was their God invisible, now His messenger had disappeared too. They wanted something they could understand and touch. And they were prepared to pay for it.

Aaron collected the jewellery from the men, women, and children, and fashioned it into a molten calf. The chosen people had adapted to the world market of polytheism. At the time, the animal was a popular image for strength and fertility. The dance around the golden calf ended in an orgy.

Moses took up the fight against the idol, gathered the sons of Levi around him, and asked them to take up the sword. After this Moses went up the mountain again in order to obtain forgiveness for the people.

Rich in interpretations

How this incident is interpreted depends not least of all on the interpreter. One can always find suitable arguments in the Bible text or in its context:

  • antitheists find proof for their favourite image of the jealous, angry God.
  • historians see it as a literary anticipation of Jeroboam I, the first king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who had two golden calves made.
  • rabbinical Jews draw a comparison to the fall of man in Paradise and speak of the Israelites’ original sin as a people.
  • and the fathers of the Christian church drew the lesson from the event that wealth and dancing incites people to sin.

What about today, in a time where it is less important to be than to own? Where the rift between rich and poor is growing wider. Where the generation and fulfilment of wishes is the engine that drives the global economy. It would be very easy to call the golden calf “consumption”. But anyone who digs a little deeper will discover even more.

Maintaining our connection

Why did the Israelites want a replacement for the true God? The people had lost contact with God’s agent, Moses, who maintained the connection to God for them.

Of course the agent is necessary, but it is equally important that we establish and maintain a personal relationship with God and foster it, that we keep a direct line open to Him, and have an intimate connection with Him, in which no one has any business to interfere.

Seeking more, finding more

So what was the actual transgression of the people? No, they had not built themselves a rival god. Because the dance around the golden calf had initially started as a celebration to honour the one and only God. However, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything,” it says in the commandments.

How is that supposed to work? As soon as you begin to think about God or talk about God you begin to develop an idea of God—your own image of God. No matter how hard we humans try, we cannot avoid it.

What is important, however, is that we clearly distinguish between things. My image of God is not who God really is. He is always greater than anything we could ever imagine. Nor do I make the image I have of God my god. I don’t stop there, but keep searching. After all, we have been promised that those who seek will find. And those who continue to seek will find more and more.

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Andreas Rother